DVD: Clouds of Sils Maria

CloudsDVDSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Olivier Assayas | CAST: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn
RELEASE DATE: 6/28/16 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: interviews with director and cast, short film “Cloud Phenomena of Maloja”
SPECS: R | 123 min. | Drama | 2:39 | 5.1 surround |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

At this point, Olivier Assayas has made a few films about the creative process and those whose lives are bound up in it. He has also made films that were conceived as vehicles for certain performers (Clean, for example, written for his ex-wife Maggie Cheung, is probably the best example of this).

Clouds of Sils Maria is neither the best nor the worst of these. It is instead a collection of scenes that are beautifully conceived and acted, and others that crash with a thud. A key problem in the film’s script leads to the latter; the talent of the two leads thankfully supplies the former.

The film is a character study involving Maria (Juliette Binoche, (Hail Mary, Cosmopolis), an aging actress, and Val (Kristen Stewart, Twilight  franchise), her personal assistant. Val juggles every aspect of Maria’s life but feels she isn’t valued as a human being; Maria, for her part, is concerned with aging and the roles she’s being offered. Their relationship changes for good when Maria is asked by a well-regarded theater director to appear in a revival of the play that made her name — this time not in the young ingénue role, but as the middle-aged woman boss who becomes her lover and, ultimately, her victim.

Herein enters the “problem” mentioned above. Assayas primarily develops the relationship between Maria and Val by showing them “running lines” for the play in a very realistic fashion, with the women getting caught up in the emotion of the play. Their own relationship is reflected in the harshly confrontational dialogue they’re reviewing, but the play is one that Assays concocted himself and which never seems like an organic piece of theater.

Thus, Clouds offers two top-notch performances by Binoche and Stewart, but the bulk of the sequences fall into two categories: the pair acting out the play Maria is trying to re-commit to memory, and Val offering Maria advice that she rejects at every turn. The play is often referred to in the film as being a seminal modern work (written by a Swiss playwright, presumably in the Eighties) that offers two believable and three-dimensional characters. Unfortunately, the play we see Maria and Val performing sounds like a recently-written, rather pat piece of psychodrama.

Juliette Binoche (l.) and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche (l.) and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria

The scenes that do work wonderfully in the film are those that openly address the situation of aging actresses in today’s movie business. Maria is known to European viewers as an actress with great “arthouse” credits to her name, but it’s acknowledged that the most “important” roles she’s had in recent years were in lackluster Hollywood movies. In fact, Assayas includes a scene in which Maria and Val go to see one such movie and witness one of the heavier, “philosophical” scenes in a fantasy blockbuster (think the first Matrix or the Dark Knight trilogy).

Clouds is on safest ground when investigating how the worlds of “high” and “low” entertainment have come together for European performers who want to keep working in the film industry. Assayas demonstrates this fact rather clearly in the casting, by putting two icons of the New German Cinema — Hanns Zischler (Kings of the Road) and Angela Winkler (The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum) — in supporting roles here, but (naturally) focusing viewers’ attention on the characters played by Stewart and Carrie‘s Chloe Grace Moretz (who plays Maria’s unlikely, Lindsay Lohan-like costar in the play).

The original supplements shot for this Criterion edition (the film was previously issued on Paramount last year) do much to “unlock” the more curious aspects of the film. In an interview segment Assayas says that he wrote the film exclusively for Binoche, and was heavily influenced by Bergman’s Persona and Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (he openly admits that the play in the film is his own variant on Petra). He also declares that he didn’t want Binoche and Stewart to run through the dialogue from the “play” beforehand and instead decided to “shoot the rehearsals.”

Full-length interviews with Binoche and Stewart offer a fascinating juxtaposition: Binoche distances herself from Maria, while Stewart embraces Val completely. Binoche contends that her character’s insecurities are not her own, and that Assayas wrote the film for himself, not for her. She also addresses the severe, unflattering way her character changes her look (the polar opposite of the long blonde hair that made Binoche look radiant in Assayas’ 2008 film Summer Hours). She admits that the close-cropped haircut that Maria adopts for her predatory character is a “stereotype” lesbian look, but that “at the same time it would help [my performance] maybe.”

Stewart discusses her enthusiasm for the role of Val, and her intimidation at doing the line-reading scenes with Binoche. She discusses one of the more surprising scenes in the film, where Maria skinny-dips with Val (the two characters are not lovers, and Val/Stewart chooses to remain in her underwear as the two swim). She says that Assays told them to do whatever was most comfortable, in the scene, but she knew Binoche was going to do something daring. Stewart describes Binoche’s nudity rather pithily: “It’s bad-ass and she’s beautiful.”

Stewart thankfully also comments on the sudden disappearance of a main character toward the end of the film (a technique Assayas borrows from his own Irma Vep but which is quite sudden and “mysterious” here). She thoroughly explains the disappearance and why it takes place, thus supplying a very concrete explanation for something that is elided in the film itself.

As a final bonus, the Criterion package includes Arnold Fanck’s 1924 short documentary “Cloud Phenomena of Maloja.” Fanck’s film is seen in Clouds and in fact gave Assayas the idea for the film’s setting, a village in Switzerland where clouds take the form of a “snake” that billows through the countryside. What that absolutely beautiful but somewhat Freudian cloud formation means to the plot of the film is never explored, but it does supply a beautiful location and lovely visuals.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”